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Single Women after the Great War

PUBLISHED: 10:38 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 15:06 20 February 2013

Florence White, whose relentlessly campaigned for rights for single women

Florence White, whose relentlessly campaigned for rights for single women

How two million 'surplus' women left stranded by the Great War helped to fashion a more moderrn society - despite predictable opposition


With Mothering Sunday so early in March this year, only a couple of days after the extra day in February as it is Leap Year - when it is deemed acceptable for the fairer sex to make the proposal of marriage - and all following on a mere couple of weeks since the hearts and flowers of Valentine's Day, it is hard to escape the fact that romance is promoted on a grand scale with girl friends, wives and mothers the focus of all attention: appreciation at least and adulation at most. The old adage that 'all the world loves a lover' is the underlying sentiment that oils the commercial wheels for these special dates, but Valentine's Day, Leap Day, and Mothers' Day apart there is a perpetual push for match-making. Pairing people off is now high profile business. Advertisements announce that there are eleven million single people in Britain, but 'you don't have to be one of them' is a popular promise of introduction bureaux, internet sites and holiday firms - all anxious to redress the problem of 'the singles'.


The singular state, whether by design or destiny, is certainly one that arouses some form of curiosity as to why.


Statistics can, of course, be manipulated to fit a purpose, but if those revealed by the 2001 Census, whereby (it is said) that around a million men of marriageable age appear to have gone missing, (with one theory that they all emigrated in search of employment abroad) social historians could be engaged in a very interesting investigation as to the whys and wherefores of such a revelation.


No such mystery about the phenomenon of nearly two million single women shown up in the 1921 Census - collectively, and rather callously, known as the Surplus Women whose chances of marriage were buried in the mud and blood of the trenches when the young men of their generation perished in the First World War. The toll takes on heart-rending proportions when, as a result of army policy placing men of the same locality in a single regiment, whole communities suffered; and a number of individual families, of course, bore unbearable losses as anyone who has read the names on Great Rissington's war memorial will appreciate when the names of five Soul brothers appear as making the ultimate sacrifice in the First World War. Only twenty-eight villages in the whole of England were able to welcome home each one of their young men who had set out to fight for king and country during that bleak time in our history.


Fiction writers particularly used the very real emotions of loss and grief and all the consequences of what became known as 'the lost generation' as their theme in the decades following the war. But more prosaic, and chillingly prophetic, was this announcement made in 1917 by a senior mistress to an assembled sixth form at a girls' school. 'I have come to tell you a terrible fact. Only one out of ten of you girls can ever hope to marry. This is a statistical fact. Nearly all the men you might have married have been killed. You will have to make your way in the world as best you can.' When the 1921 Census figures were released the national press blazoned headlines ranging from 'Problem of the Surplus Woman - Two Million who can Never Become Wives' to assertions that 'the superfluous women are a disaster to the human race.'


It suddenly seemed as though no one knew what to do about the irreversible starkly real situation and instead of sympathetic help, the unmarried maidens became classified as 'disgruntled, frustrated, soured spinsters' who, according to some press reports should be shipped off to the Colonies 'where the toll of war has not been as great as in this country, and where men want wives'. As well as becoming vilified and ridiculed as 'husband hunters' and caricatured as gorgon maiden aunts at the pen of writers such as Noel Coward and Hillaire Belloc - although Richmal Crompton (a single lady herself) wrote in her William books of sniffy boy-hating maiden aunts with piles of darning to do, thwarting William's exploits - there was a strong undercurrent of male resentment at the signs of women attempting any kind of parity in the workplace and political field. Standing on their own feet, supporting themselves from their own earnings, channelling their efforts into careers and accepting that marriage was not for them and did not really mean their life was not worth living in its own right, earned the spirited and brave young women such titles as 'flappers and feminists, man-hating shrews and militants'.


A few individuals of an earlier generation had already started to question their role and purpose in life: Florence Nightingale was a forthright pioneer in choosing independence to marital dependence on a husband which she saw as 'behind his destiny woman must annihilate herself', and devoted her life to her work. The suffragette movement brought the Edwardian ladies into national political focus and after women got the vote in 1918, the Sex Disqualification Removal Act followed in the next year, changing the law which had barred women's entry to the professions, and Oxford made a hesitant but liberal step in admitting women as members of the university. But it was still a man's world: one don made the female students sit behind him at his lectures 'so that he couldn't see them'; another addressed the undergraduates as 'Gentlemen - and others who attend my lectures'. On a less loftier scale, but equalling impressive and influential in fighting for the right to pensions of unmarried women was the indomitable Miss Florence White, supported by her sister, Annie, setting up the National Spinsters Pension Association and making the country 'spinster conscious'. Their life together behind the campaigns is one of those singled out by Virginia Nicholson in her recently published book of that name in which she explores the many ways that spinsters met the challenge imposed upon nearly two million of them and how they survived without men after the First World War. This is more than a catalogue of sad stories and lost loves, it charts the historic turn around of the role of women - how, through circumstance rather than choice the single state became a liberation and a launching pad into society as we now live in.


Vocations became life time commitments and although nurses were depicted as ministering angels in snowy white caps and aprons, nannies as comforting substitutes for socially busy parents - and often maintained a life-long bond with their charges, teaching was almost universally categorised as a spinster-ridden profession. And as though to uphold that long held tradition, most local authorities imposed a marriage ban on lady teachers in the inter-war years. Yet, as many examples in the Cotswolds show, it is in the educational field that single women achieved lasting greatness and respect: Miss Lilian Faithfull, Principal of Cheltenham Ladies' College, quickly adapted the curriculum to meet the post Great War desires of her students for academic qualifications as opposed to merely social accomplishments; and Margery Fry, Principal of Somerville College, Oxford, a noted penal reformer and magistrate, paid tribute to all the spinsters upon whom the smooth running of society depended in her book The Single Woman.


J B Priestley wrote passionately on 'the generation to which I belong, destroyed between 1914 and 1918, was a great generation, marvellous in its promise', and Doris Lessing penned an angry reminder in her autobiography of the consequences wrought through the disaster of the First World War - of 'unlived lives, unborn children'. For Elizabeth Goudge, reflecting in her Cotswold cottage on those times in The Joy of the Snow it was the 'blessed fact of loving' that was the richness of falling in love. The 'war to end all wars' as it has sometimes been called, robbed the country of a whole generation of young men and the lives of the girls they left behind shaped a changed society - which is their enduring legacy.



With Mothering Sunday so early in March this year, only a couple of days after the extra day in February as it is Leap Year - when it is deemed acceptable for the fairer sex to make the proposal of marriage - and all following on a mere couple of weeks since the hearts and flowers of Valentine's Day, it is hard to escape the fact that romance is promoted on a grand scale with girl friends, wives and mothers the focus of all attention: appreciation at least and adulation at most. The old adage that 'all the world loves a lover' is the underlying sentiment that oils the commercial wheels for these special dates, but Valentine's Day, Leap Day, and Mothers' Day apart there is a perpetual push for match-making. Pairing people off is now high profile business. Advertisements announce that there are eleven million single people in Britain, but 'you don't have to be one of them' is a popular promise of introduction bureaux, internet sites and holiday firms - all anxious to redress the problem of 'the singles'.


The singular state, whether by design or destiny, is certainly one that arouses some form of curiosity as to why.


Statistics can, of course, be manipulated to fit a purpose, but if those revealed by the 2001 Census, whereby (it is said) that around a million men of marriageable age appear to have gone missing, (with one theory that they all emigrated in search of employment abroad) social historians could be engaged in a very interesting investigation as to the whys and wherefores of such a revelation.


No such mystery about the phenomenon of nearly two million single women shown up in the 1921 Census - collectively, and rather callously, known as the Surplus Women whose chances of marriage were buried in the mud and blood of the trenches when the young men of their generation perished in the First World War. The toll takes on heart-rending proportions when, as a result of army policy placing men of the same locality in a single regiment, whole communities suffered; and a number of individual families, of course, bore unbearable losses as anyone who has read the names on Great Rissington's war memorial will appreciate when the names of five Soul brothers appear as making the ultimate sacrifice in the First World War. Only twenty-eight villages in the whole of England were able to welcome home each one of their young men who had set out to fight for king and country during that bleak time in our history.


Fiction writers particularly used the very real emotions of loss and grief and all the consequences of what became known as 'the lost generation' as their theme in the decades following the war. But more prosaic, and chillingly prophetic, was this announcement made in 1917 by a senior mistress to an assembled sixth form at a girls' school. 'I have come to tell you a terrible fact. Only one out of ten of you girls can ever hope to marry. This is a statistical fact. Nearly all the men you might have married have been killed. You will have to make your way in the world as best you can.' When the 1921 Census figures were released the national press blazoned headlines ranging from 'Problem of the Surplus Woman - Two Million who can Never Become Wives' to assertions that 'the superfluous women are a disaster to the human race.'


It suddenly seemed as though no one knew what to do about the irreversible starkly real situation and instead of sympathetic help, the unmarried maidens became classified as 'disgruntled, frustrated, soured spinsters' who, according to some press reports should be shipped off to the Colonies 'where the toll of war has not been as great as in this country, and where men want wives'. As well as becoming vilified and ridiculed as 'husband hunters' and caricatured as gorgon maiden aunts at the pen of writers such as Noel Coward and Hillaire Belloc - although Richmal Crompton (a single lady herself) wrote in her William books of sniffy boy-hating maiden aunts with piles of darning to do, thwarting William's exploits - there was a strong undercurrent of male resentment at the signs of women attempting any kind of parity in the workplace and political field. Standing on their own feet, supporting themselves from their own earnings, channelling their efforts into careers and accepting that marriage was not for them and did not really mean their life was not worth living in its own right, earned the spirited and brave young women such titles as 'flappers and feminists, man-hating shrews and militants'.


A few individuals of an earlier generation had already started to question their role and purpose in life: Florence Nightingale was a forthright pioneer in choosing independence to marital dependence on a husband which she saw as 'behind his destiny woman must annihilate herself', and devoted her life to her work. The suffragette movement brought the Edwardian ladies into national political focus and after women got the vote in 1918, the Sex Disqualification Removal Act followed in the next year, changing the law which had barred women's entry to the professions, and Oxford made a hesitant but liberal step in admitting women as members of the university. But it was still a man's world: one don made the female students sit behind him at his lectures 'so that he couldn't see them'; another addressed the undergraduates as 'Gentlemen - and others who attend my lectures'. On a less loftier scale, but equalling impressive and influential in fighting for the right to pensions of unmarried women was the indomitable Miss Florence White, supported by her sister, Annie, setting up the National Spinsters Pension Association and making the country 'spinster conscious'. Their life together behind the campaigns is one of those singled out by Virginia Nicholson in her recently published book of that name in which she explores the many ways that spinsters met the challenge imposed upon nearly two million of them and how they survived without men after the First World War. This is more than a catalogue of sad stories and lost loves, it charts the historic turn around of the role of women - how, through circumstance rather than choice the single state became a liberation and a launching pad into society as we now live in.


Vocations became life time commitments and although nurses were depicted as ministering angels in snowy white caps and aprons, nannies as comforting substitutes for socially busy parents - and often maintained a life-long bond with their charges, teaching was almost universally categorised as a spinster-ridden profession. And as though to uphold that long held tradition, most local authorities imposed a marriage ban on lady teachers in the inter-war years. Yet, as many examples in the Cotswolds show, it is in the educational field that single women achieved lasting greatness and respect: Miss Lilian Faithfull, Principal of Cheltenham Ladies' College, quickly adapted the curriculum to meet the post Great War desires of her students for academic qualifications as opposed to merely social accomplishments; and Margery Fry, Principal of Somerville College, Oxford, a noted penal reformer and magistrate, paid tribute to all the spinsters upon whom the smooth running of society depended in her book The Single Woman.


J B Priestley wrote passionately on 'the generation to which I belong, destroyed between 1914 and 1918, was a great generation, marvellous in its promise', and Doris Lessing penned an angry reminder in her autobiography of the consequences wrought through the disaster of the First World War - of 'unlived lives, unborn children'. For Elizabeth Goudge, reflecting in her Cotswold cottage on those times in The Joy of the Snow it was the 'blessed fact of loving' that was the richness of falling in love. The 'war to end all wars' as it has sometimes been called, robbed the country of a whole generation of young men and the lives of the girls they left behind shaped a changed society - which is their enduring legacy.

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